More people have walked on the moon than have swum with polar bears. So Amos Nachoum has that over Neil Armstrong.
In fact, not only did the acclaimed photographer—whose work has appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times, among many others—come away unharmed from his encounter with the Arctic’s apex predator, but he’s planning to go back into those icy waters once world travel opens back up. And you can join him for the low, low price of $147,000.
Surprisingly, the cost isn’t the main deterrent.
“My condition for anyone who wants to go is they must join me on one or two other trips before I take them to polar bears,” says Nachoum over the phone from California.
He has to know he can trust those who join him in the water; that they’ll follow his orders and work together as a team to view these beautiful but deadly animals up close, lest the trip of a lifetime come at the cost of one.
“Unfortunately, the price may be $150,000 and people may be willing to pay, but they’re shy about [taking] another trip with me.”
One hopes Nachoum doesn’t take that hesitation personally. Polar bears are well and good but who wouldn’t want to go on a diving adventure with someone who’s spent the past 40 years taking candid underwater portraits of some of the most dangerous animals on the planet?
In all that time—swimming with everything from crocodiles and killer whales, to anacondas and great white sharks—one animal eluded him. “The most enigmatic animal in the wilderness,” according to Nachoum. That is, until 2015, when he finally swam with his photographic quarry off the coast of Ellesmere Island. The story of that expedition is documented in the film Picture Of His Life, which recently screened at the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival. Nachoum, and filmmaker Adam Ravetch, were guided on their trip by Joe Kaludjuak and his family, who offered their hospitality and knowledge of the High Arctic to the southern visitors.
“All due respect to the Inuit, the local people, who knew how to lead us and where to lead us the right way,” says Nachoum. “They know the wind, cloud, the wildlife more than anyone else.”
They also know how dangerous polar bears can be. Rarely does one go out looking for the deadly marine mammal, and certainly not while wading through open waters. Did the Inuit he met while in Nunavut think that Nachoum’s dream was, well, a little crazy?
“Absolutely,” he says with a laugh. “They accepted me into their community for the five to seven days we go together… [but] they did not want to be in the water with me.”
Success on this expedition took patience. Years of planning went into organizing the trip and several days were spent trying to locate the bears. Then there was the matter of buoyancy. The key to great underwater photography, says Nachoum, is being perfectly balanced in the water so that the diver can change their direction, rising or falling, simply by breathing. Achieving such buoyancy required two hours of trial and error going in and out of the water with different weights, even using spare nuts and bolts from the boat.
Finally ready for a close-up, Nachoum and Ravetch slipped into the ocean. The expedition had spotted a mother bear and two cubs some 70 metres away and the two divers treaded water on the surface to draw the family’s curiosity. As the bears began heading their way, Nachoum and Ravetch slipped beneath the surface. It took 30 minutes for the bears to come within camera range. The sun was shining but the Arctic waters were still dark and murky. “If she had been only five metres to my left or right, I could not take the picture,” Nachoum says of the mama bear. “But she came directly at my head.”
One of the cubs dove down to get a closer look at the strange visitors, and then they were gone. The bears moved on with their lives, uninterested in Nachoum as food or threat. The photographer stayed in the water another minute or two before surfacing in elation.
Despite being eye-to-eye with a family of killers weighing in excess of 450 kilograms, Nachoum says he wasn’t scared. Take it from the expert in swimming with deadly beasties: there’s a reason some animals are dangerous and it’s always situational. He’s studied some of the most feared creatures from all over the world—and the behaviour of polar bears on the ice many times—and emerged from all of his encounters having never suffered an attack or injury.
Still, he won’t be going back to the Arctic anytime soon. Or anywhere else, for that matter. The globe-trotting photographer who has never spent more than a month at home in the last four decades hasn’t been able to leave his house for the past year. COVID-19, says Nachoum, has altered travel forever.
“It will not be the same, I can tell you that right now.”